A new movie, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, is coming out this Friday. This is actually a very big deal if you’re a kid or a teenager who’s been reading the book serial, which is up to number 11, The Grim Grotto, by now.
When I first saw this book in bookstores, I thought it was a blatant Harry Potter rip off. A kid with glasses on the front cover, evil forces, and a teasing pseudo-Gothic style … I’d seen this before.
But I always pay attention when one of my kids likes something, and I definitely pay attention when two of them like the same thing, and when they both like it a lot.
They are always into lots of things, but when a new Lemony Snicket book came out they’d be asking for money with an intensity I didn’t usually see. I also saw them discussing these books intently, searching web pages for explanations, intrigued beyond anything Harry Potter ever did for them.
It turns out the Harry Potter resemblance is mainly in the business plan surrounding the book series, and in each author’s sense of fun. The Snicket books are darker, funnier, more twisted and baroque, and undoubtedly postmodern. It caught my attention when I heard my kids talking about “Baudelaire” and “Poe” — it turns out these are the names of major characters in the book. The cover design, reminiscent of classic Wacky Packages artwork, suggests a chaotic, dark world view, and a kind of story where the ending isn’t necessarily happy.
In fact, a hilarious, self-mocking gloominess permeates these books. Each book opens with a short epigram about the author’s tragic love for a mysterious Beatrice — a reference that will be familiar to anybody who has read Dante.
In fact, the books are packed thick with references to classic authors, and not just any authors. Lemony Snicket only name-checks writers of a certain visionary, bohemian, gothic and mystical school, exemplified by Charles Baudelaire as well as by Edgar Allen Poe and Dante. T. S. Eliot, who was greatly influenced by Baudelaire just as Baudelaire was influenced by Poe, gets a big cameo in the 11th installment. And when Lemony Snicket shouts out to Herman Melville, he doesn’t give us a fish named Moby Dick. Instead, we get a submarine named “Queequeeg.” You’ve just got to admire the writer’s imagination.
It turns out that Lemony Snicket is Daniel Handler, a New York City slacker and novelist who’d been nursing a weak literary career (aren’t we all) before dreaming up the Baudelaire children.
The movie, starring Jim Carrey as the bad guy Count Olaf, will hopefully be pretty good. I’ll certainly be seeing it this weekend.
But I imagine I’ll always like the books better. I’m not really following the plot too closely at this point, but I am in suspense as to when Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Arthur Rimbaud and William Burroughs will show up. Maybe that’ll be book number 12.
Any other Snicketheads out there?